"The New Blackthorn Stick" is said to be the first ever Irish traditional clarinet album. The album features classical clarinetist Andy Lamy performing dance sets and lyrical airs in both solo and group instrumental combinations, featuring the musicians who taught and inspired him in his pursuit of adding the clarinet's sound to Irish traditional music.
Tom Keller (Walkin' Tom): The New Blackthorn Stick is an album featuring traditional Irish music. However, you're a classical musician in the first place...
Andy Lamy: I am a native Californian of mixed musical lineage—raised on classical, big band, musical theatre, and plainsong from my Irish grandmother. My father was born in Toronto and grew up in Buffalo, NY—my mother hailed from Michigan. Both were from musical families—my father, and my grandfather and my great grandfather were all clarinetists and in fact my great grandfather was the principal and solo clarinet of the first iteration of the Toronto Symphony back at the turn of the last century. Clarinet is deeply rooted in the family, and my father gave me my first several lessons directly on his own and started me off on the instrument. Subsequently I studied with Rocco DiStasio, David Breeden, Mary Gale, David Howard, Yehuda Gilad, Michele Zukovsky, and Mitchell Lurie. I eventually moved East to join the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra where I have been now for 20 years. As a New York area freelance musician I’ve since performed with the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the Saint Louis Symphony, and the Royal Opera of London.
How did you come to traditional Irish music?
Since moving to the New York area I have discovered the wonderful Irish traditional scene here and reconnected to my own Irish roots through the live and recorded music of Mary Bergin, Tommy Peoples, Matt Molloy, Joanie Madden, Tommy Peoples, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Oisin McAuley, Bryan Conway, and Felix Dolan. I picked up the tin whistle and began to join in local music sessions where the Irish musicians gather to exchange tunes…and soon discovered the classic recordings of Andy McGann, Willie Clancy, Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran, James Morrison, Patsy Tuohy, and a long list of other great musicians.
The clarinet might have been included in céilí bands half a century ago... But what made you adapt the “New Blackhorn Stick” to traditional Irish music?
I initially only played tin whistle in sessions, but I often had the clarinet along with me when going to or from another gig. A musician friend named Iris Nevins then showed me a 1935 group photo of Paddy Killoran's Pride of Erin Orchestra showing the brothers James Ryan and Paul Ryan were holding clarinets and saxophones. I did a little research and found out that this band featured clarinet and sax on more than 20 of the recordings that they made. So, it seemed the precedent had been set in the 1930’s by a top New York/Sligo ensemble. The clarinet is certainly renowned for its expressive and agile character in classical, jazz, blues, Klezmer, Balkan, breton, and even hindustani music, and it can certainly add a sweet, galvanizing presence to an Irish session also, when all goes well. Similar to the pipes or box, clarinet adds a resonant timbre to an ensemble…but can have a gentle, round sound, like that of a concertina. Thus, persuant to this effort to play tunes on the clarinet in a way that might lock step with the distinctive New York/Sligo style, I’ve been extremely honored and fortunate to study Irish music from Mary Bergin and fiddle great Brian Conway.
What do you think about the clarinet's sound?
The clarinet has many different possible sounds, and thus has been included in virtually every type of folk music—and is thus often called the fiddle of the woodwinds. It can have a forward, brilliant sound, but can also play with a velvety, lyrical quality, softer than the any other wind instrument. I believe that the clarinet could be welcome in Irish traditional music—provided that the clarinetist finds the right articulation and the right “loudness” level, depending on which other instruments are present. Clarinet with one fiddle, for example, has to be played softer than when joining two or three fiddles in a group. It can be played with a normal voice when joining with a button accordion player or a piper since those instruments are generally louder.
Can you explicate the style you're employing?
I’ve tried out a cadre of ornamentation styles for Irish clarinet and have moved toward a blend of different ornamentations, integrating techniques from singers, concertina, fiddle, flute, pipes, and whistle. I have found it helpful to draw from both relatively simple and more complex ornamentation styles in order to strike the right balance of flow and inner detail. When it comes to faster reels, the slur patterns and ornamentation scenarios of the Sligo fiddle seem to be a better model for the clarinet than those of pipes, flute, or tin whistle. The ornamentation patterns favored by such musicians as Mary Bergin work well on the clarinet for hornpipes and for jigs. In the case of slow airs I have prepared by listening to numerous source recordings and performances by singers, fiddlers, pipers, whistlers, and box players. There are two wonderful slow airs on this album, and both of them were passed to me by musicians from Donegal. The Lord Mayo Air on track 4 of the album has been in the family of Kathleen Boyle for over 250 years, and the other one was a newly composed air by Tommy Peoples that Frankie Kennedy first recorded.
Is it easier to play a slow air on the clarinet than fast dance tunes such as jigs and reels?
Perhaps, clarinet is famous across many genres for its mellifluous quality. However, I’ve learned that each slow air is unique, and it is always helpful to hear and understand the lyrics when considering the pacing and emphasis of sub-phrases. A few years back I had a very helpful marathon lesson with Joanie Madden, and she immediately delved into her library for texts and lyrics of each air that we considered, giving meticulous attention to the connection between meaning and expressive pace. This reverence and care made a lasting impression on me—it’s no wonder that she plays airs so magically!
What would you reply to someone who says the clarinet is wrong for traditional music!?
I’d say that it’s relatively new in traditional music, but arguably works very well and has been well received by some top traditional music experts and artists of the present day. My own personal sojourn into the Irish clarinet is a musical exploration, and I don’t think that by experimenting thus (in the same way that Paddy Killoran and Paul Ryan did by adding clarinet to the Pride of Erin Band in the early 1930’s) that any harm will come to Irish traditional music. It’s a beautiful and facile instrument with a lyrical voice that has the possibility of being included more in the future—even as a special, occasional color.
That said, I don’t think anyone benefits if someone hastily attempts to play traditional music on the clarinet or any other new instrument without extensive stylistic preparation. Reverence for this or any musical genre can be shown by making an effort to study the primary sources and the current and old masters—by listening to, learning from, and matching the traditional voices that one could hear in sessions, concerts, and recordings. For that reason, this album was created with only a small measure of SOLO clarinet, instead featuring mostly blended, mixed instrument ensemble playing. Similarly, when I enter a new session in an unfamiliar locale, I try to properly introduce myself or just sit and play only tin whistle—until someone asks about or welcomes the clarinet and invites the new instrument to have a spin. The process by which this album was created allowed the traditional phrasing details of such masters as Brian Conway, Mary Bergin, Dermot Byrne, John Whelan and Jerry O’Sullivan to shine through clearly.
There will be some people for whom it’s never right to have clarinet in traditional music, but I submit that some measure of curiosity about innovation has always been part of the Irishness and the Celtic culture at large. (Even going from the older Stone Age to the newer Bronze Age required new tools and new agricultural methods—and we’re all certainly better off for that...And research shows that the fuddy-duddies were marginalized, their DNA all but disappeared!) Recent examples of musical innovations include the banjo, the piano (which is new within the last century in traditional music), the low whistle, and the electric piano, the most extreme example of all! Electric piano is certainly even newer than the clarinet—but it’s been accepted right into the heart of ITM albums over the last forty years. I believe that if handled correctly and dosed properly, the clarinet can have its place!
What were the criteria to choose the tunes and put the sets together?
Some tunes are quite old ones taken from the O’Neill’s collection. Some are recent. A lot of the tune sets I just learned organically from the musicians and recordings that have influenced and inspired me— Mary Bergin, Tommy Peoples, Brian Conway, Andy McGann, Matt Molloy, Sean Keane, Frankie Kennedy, Felix Dolan, Joe Burke, as well as Muireann Nic Auliffe recordings, as well as such gem collections like “As We Got Them” from County Sligo. I was, however, always attracted to the tunes that put the clarinet in the best light and perhaps brought out the ability of the clarinet to play low as on the G string of a fiddle or even down on the C string of a viola, and then to go up high as well with some of the grace of a flute or a violin in third or fourth position. There is a lot of New York/Sligo DNA in the sets. The O’Neill’s tunes, some of which had never been recorded before this album, I chose specifically with piper Jerry O’Sullivan in mind. I know that he has a great love of the 18th and 19th century tunes, so we chose that set with the Connaught Heifers, Mountain Lark, Green Branch (which had never been recording before), and the Green Linnet, another rarely played tune.
There is also a lot of your own compositions. Is composing a deliberate effort or just an unplanned by-product?
I did compose four of the tunes on the album. Some were a deliberate effort but one of them came to me in a dream. I just woke up singing the tune one day and called it “Finn McCoul's Favorite”, after the legendary folk hero of Ireland. “The Fiddling Barrister” is a clog hornpipe in F for the amazing Brian Conway, and “Felix Gone Fishing” was created for Felix Dolan. The latter is a joyful A-mixolydian tune which captures Felix’s smile and up-beat character. Finally, “The Echo of Carrowkeel" is a slip jig that evokes the mysterious mists, hills, lakes and sweeping views that have made those hilltops in the heart of South Sligo an important site for over 6 thousand years—right in Coleman/Morrison/Killoran territory.
Thank you, Andy, for answering all our questions! So last but not least, what's in the pipeline?
Thank you for your interest in the album. It was great to have the album and the group “Andy Lamy & Friends” featured in this year’s live TG-4 Fleadh TV broadcast—it was well received and it just won best live event for 2015 in the Irish Film & Television Awards. We are trying to look for more venues and festivals to visit as soon as possible.
I’m working with a small team of star musicians—several of whom were involved in last year’s James Morrison tribute at the 2015 Fleadh Cheoil—to recreate the live sound of Paddy Killoran’s New York-based 1930’s “Pride of Erin Orchestra” (which included fiddles and button accordion, banjo, piano, clarinet, and saxophone, and more). We’ll use recordings, period photos and reports, and interview some people who knew Paddy Killoran and the reed-playing Ryan brothers—so stay tuned for a Paddy Killoran revival in 2016 for both New York and Ireland! Another album that is going to be released soon is from the wonderful sean-nos (old style) singer, Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhríde, blending traditional singing with the clarinet along with pedal steel guitar—a unique and new fusion.
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Andy Lamy, (3) Mary Bergin, (4) Brian Conway, (5) Kevin Crawford, (6) John Whelan (unknown/website).